I feel fortunate to have a legitimate excuse to call this book McLuhan’s Window, because without such a title it might be difficult to frame the sprawling, unorthodox, multi-disciplinary amoeboid that is Marshall McLuhan’s thought, and to really hold it up to the age we now live in. You can’t hold up ‘thought’, in general, to the world, but you can certainly hold up a window. And once McLuhan’s Window is held up to the fast-paced, chaotic, instant, constant swarm of communication and relationship that is taking place inside all of our phones and laptops and tablets (and, thus, our minds) today, it’s amazing the clarity that ensues – especially when it comes to the Trudeaus and Trumps and politics of our time.
It is quite frankly ridiculous how much McLUhan saw coming. When seen thru McLuhan’s Window, the changes that are overwhelming and reshaping our societies via the influence and prevalence of electric media seem much less confusing – in fact, these changes seemed so matter-of-factly self-evident to McLuhan, that he predicted many of them.
And actually, when applying McLuhan’s insight to the North Amercian political developments of 2015 and 2016, “McLuhan’s Window” is a pretty appropriate phrase. Much more appropriate than, say, “McLuhan’s Theory” or “McLuhan’s Ideology,” of which he had neither. McLuhan was a theoretician without theories. One of the reason’s his observations – even his most famous dictums – have been so difficult to quantify is that McLuhan did his best to remove his personal “point of view” or ideology from them. This was one of his premises for research.
There is no quantifiable “World according to Marshall McLuhan”.
McLuhan loved the pun – the lexicon’s tiniest unit of metaphor. He saw puns and their flexible, uncanny ability to mean multiple things at once, as the perfect linguistic accompaniment to the simultaneity of electrical age. McLuhan’s Window, is most certainly a bit of a pun, which, when carried far enough becomes and analogy, which, when carried further still, becomes allegory. Not quite parable, perhaps; but perhaps still some sort of pathway to Truth.
Obviously, A window is literally a kind of looking glass, which, both literally and figuratively requires vision. In the electric spectacle of 2017 we are now in a perfect position to ‘see’ the extent to which McLuhan was most certainly a man of this. Indeed, the vision of this visionary reached levels of the seer. LIving inside this future that McLuhan foresaw so accurately, we can appreciate the extent to which the man who wrote Understanding Media in 1964, truly did understand so many of the myriad unsuspected effects the media was having, and would have, upon society. Using his unique exploration techniques, McLuhan detected aspects of media influence that still go unsuspected among major media players today. And as the world rolls into (perhaps ‘braces for’ is the better phrase) a Donald Trump presidency, the revolution McLuhan described is coming into clearer focus. Many of the details he outlined to Pierre Trudeau in 1968 – details that so confused Trudeau at the time – have happened with such startling magnitude in this age of instant, constant, electric media that many who wish to make a nouveau Nostradamus of McLuhan find themselves in possession of a great deal of fresh ammunition.
They can thank Trump; they can thank Trudeau. But they can equally thank Hillary Clinton and Stephen Harper, and the favourite to win the 2015 Canadian Leadership at the start of the race, Tom Mulcair. For just as Trump and Trudeau validated McLuhan by their understandings of how to enter the media stream during a political campaign; the crews of Clinton, Harper and Mulcair validated McLuhan by showing the catastrophes that can occure via NOT understanding the state of media, not recognizing the either dominant medium of communication or how it actually works.
There are plenty of ways to play on the phrase McLuhan’s Window to utilize the vantage point it provides. This book will exploit many of them – from the Trudeau dynasty in Canada, to the fantastically flamboyant US political scene, whose establishment is in the midst of its biggest upheaval since the Civil War, to the secular individual’s quest for God, to the Roman Catholic Church’s quest for forgiveness and redemption. All of this, given new clarity and scope when seen thru McLuhan’s window.
But there is a real McLuhan’s Window, as well, and it’s one that also comes laden with allegorical ramifications – in this case rather heartbreaking ones.
I came upon McLuhan’s Window, in front of McLuhan’s once vibrant, now desolate Coach House headquarters on the University of Toronto campus.
McLUhan’s biographer Philip Marchand describes McLuhan’s relationship to the building from the time the media icon made it his headquarters:
“… McLuhan felt as comfortable in the new office as he did in his old brown tweed suit. He filled it with his cherished artifacts, including his Cambridge oar and a large, semiabstract, incompetent mural done by a friend that captured, it was said, the effects of television on the modern world. He filled the bathroom with clippings of Cartoons. He grew to love the building even more than he loved his manor at Wychwood Park. It was totally his. Even the fact that it was on the fringes of the campus endeared it to him. Had he not always insisted that the “fringe” was the best place for a true explorer to be?” (213)
I went to the Coach House on the eve of my departure from Toronto to say good bye to the great man and his aura. Since moving to Toronto three years prior to begin an MFA program, I had found myself swept up and swirling in dizzy intellectual delight – so much of it anchored in McLuhan’s life and thought and spectral presence in and around the city’s core.
I got there to find the exterior of the building totally gutted. Plywood boards stopped the gaps where windows used to be. In the parking lot, a huge dumpster served as a shattered scrapheap of fixtures and trimmings that once garnished the building’s facade. The window was the only intact item in this sea of rather historically important debris.
When I encountered the ravaged exterior of this building on a fall day in 2013, my heart broke. No small degree of outrage ensued. Sighting the lone, intact window inside the dumpster, I hopped in immediately and – in an impassioned, if somewhat maudlin gesture of allegiance to McLuhan – retrieved the artifact. My first impression of McLuhan’s Window has not lost its validity: torn apart, cast into a dumpster to be forgotten, the treatment this window received, is a perfect symbol for the atrocious and ungrateful treatment McLuhan received at the hands of his jealous, less imaginative, and occasionally rather dirty colleagues at the University of Toronto, who went behind his back and put petitions together (unsuccessfully) to get his tenure revoked.
It got so bad that McLuhan had to warn his students against referencing him in their work when they wrote papers for their other U of T classes, it would be better for their grades at the end of the year. At any rate, and fortunately, this book will not explore this unpalatable aspect of McLuhan’s career. Those academics involved in the campaign to ostracize McLuhan would probably now want anonymity for their role in the unseemly affair, and, as things have turned out, they’ve got it – McLuhan’s renown continues to grow.
The first door to McLuhan’s world really opened for me when I chose a seat at a cafe on the Ryerson campus and realized that a Marshall McLuhan: Collected Letters hardcover was sitting next to me on a little shelf. I began flipping thru it, began realizing what a fascinating letter writer McLuhan was, and marvelling at some of the famous names he corresponded with throughout his life. Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Tom Wolfe, Margaret Mead, Margaret Atwood, John Cage, Glen Gould, Woody Allen, Buckminister Fuller, Jimmy Carter, Duke Ellington, to name a few. To me the most fascinating of all McLuhan’s penpalships was the lengthy and involved correspondence he carried out with Pierre Elliot Trudeau over the course of 12 years. This book reviews this in detail.
Beyond those big catch phrases “The Medium is the Message” and “Global Village”, I knew very little of McLuhan. I certainly knew nothing of the McLuhan Vortex, into which
As a student who had just moved to Toronto, however, the most striking coincidences this book revealed were psychogeographic ones. I realized that my wanderings around Toronto were in many ways retracings of McLuhan’s own footsteps.
My shortcut thru St Michaels’ campus en route to Ryerson each day, I learned from Collected Letters, took me right thru McLuhan’s epicentre. There’s a photo on page 379 of McLuhan standing out front of an odd-looking building that I’d been passing everyday without realizing what it was: the Coach House, ground Zero for McLuhan’s intellectual life – its windows all intact, and McLuhan’s Window, the namesake of this book, sporting a fresh coat of white paint just to the left of McLuhan’s shoulder.
I’m either proud or ashamed to say that the copy of McLuhan’s Collected Letters enthralled me so much that it made its way into my bag and has stayed with me ever since. (for the record, it’s the first and only book I’ve ever stolen from a public space). Such is the power of the McLuhan vortex. Over the next three years that I spent in Toronto, I could not stop perusing the book, flipping to sections at random, always seeming to come away from the endeavour with some new tidbit or another that deepened my fascination with the man.
Further reading lead me to discover that my apartment was also situated close to 3 Wychwood Park, that Holy Rosary Cathedral, which I passed when I took the subway or shopped for groceries was the church where McLuhan and his family worshipped on Sundays, and where his funeral was held on January 3, 1981. But it wasn’t until I, a student of documentary, came across the little-known fact that McLuhan himself had made a documentary film that things got really bizarre. When I sought to track down the film, I realized that the McLuhan vortex had sucked me in completely. And I wondered if his ghost was having a laugh at my expense.
If there is one wee contribution I have made to the knowledge of McLuhan in the Global Village. It is that I did track down his film, The Burning Would (1970), and, because it was only available as a VHS cassette, I had to digitize it if I wanted to see it. So I did, then I uploaded it to YouTube so that the rest of the interested world could also see what sort of a film this master of media would produce when he took over the controls.
When I watched the film, my jaw dropped. One minute into the film, images of Winston Churchill Park, the same park where I walked my dog each day, are montaged with images from an old-school smash up derby to create a rather frightening effect. The point of the film’s rather no-holds-barred propaganda, I learned, was to prevent the construction of the Spadina Expressway, a motorway that would have passed right thru Winston Churchill Park, obliterating it from the Toronto scene, and eliminating, as it were, as an option for me to take my dog on walks each day. It is important to note that I love Winston Churchill Park, and if my dog, Lady Castro, could type, she too would profess her love for this green oasis in the heart of Toronto’s Forest Hill district. When I learned that, in 1970, in his only political action on record, McLuhan was instrumental in saving this real estate for my enjoyment, it became impossible to walk thru the park and NOT think about him.
At the end of the film, McLuhan says thru his narrator: “In the middle [of Winston Churchill Park] lies a big beautiful green field waiting for a hero to emerge on. Somewhere in Canada this man exists and we’re going to keep that field green and in the sunshine waiting for that man to arrive.”
I wouldn’t be able to properly relate how this finding impacted my
Psychogeographically speaking, without knowing it,
But before we get into
The window is also vision even. A person sees in to and out of – thru and from – a window, simultaneously. A window is a frame – it frames things. It is a look in and a look out. Now that he’s dead, McLuahn’s Window window of opportunity.It’s painful to think how truly apt an allegory McLUhan’s Window makes for the way (the actual window, not the book, which is named after it) makes for Marshall McLuhan’s life.
I half walked to the dumpster after a miserable meeting with my academic supervisors, at my university, Ryerson, just down the road. After being informed that my thesis project was no where near coherent enough for a defence, I decided to drain the remainder of the afternoon with a long, rather despondent, walk around Toronto. My footsteps were drawn, automatically, to just up the road, and down, as it were, to the far end of Marshall McLuhan Way, the Coach House building: the best place in Toronto for me to where luxuriate in my defeat.
Perhaps the main reason my thesis was in no form to defend is that, early on in the piece, I encountered Marshall McLuhan, and it wasn’t long after this that the man seized control of my imagination.